ON the following Saturday afternoon, Rachel Miller sat at the front window of the sitting-room, and arranged her light task of sewing and darning, with a feeling of unusual comfort. The household work of the week was over ; the weather was fine and warm, with a brisk drying breeze for the hay on the hill-field, the last load of which Joseph expected to have in the barn before his five-o’clock supper was ready. As she looked down the valley, she noticed that the mowers were still swinging their way through Hunter’s grass, and that Cunningham’s corn sorely needed working. There was a different state of things on the Asten place. Everything was done, and well done, up to the front of the season. The weather had been fortunate, it was true ; but Joseph had urged on the work with a different spirit. It seemed to her that he had taken a new interest in the farm ; he was here and there, even inspecting with his own eyes the minor duties which had been formerly intrusted to his man Dennis. How could she know that this activity was the only outlet for a restless heart ?
If any evil should come of his social recreation, she had done her duty ; but no evil seemed likely. She had always separated his legal from his moral independence ; there was no enactment establishing the period when the latter commenced, and it could not be made manifest by documents, like the former. She would have admitted, certainly, that her guardianship must cease at some time, but the thought of making preparation for that time had never entered her head. She only understood conditions, not the adaptation of characters to them. Going back over her own life, she could recall but little difference between the girl of eighteen and the woman of thirty. There was the same place in her home, the same duties, the same subjection to the will of her parents, — no exercise of independence or self-reliance anywhere, and no growth of those virtues beyond what a passive maturity brought with it.
Even now she thought very little about any question of life in connection with Joseph. Her parents had trained her in the discipline of a rigid sect, and sire could not dissociate the idea of morality from that of solemn renunciation. She could not say that social pleasures were positively wrong, but they always seemed to her to be enjoyed on the outside of an open door labelled “ Temptation” ; and who could tell what lay beyond ? Some very good people, she knew, were fond of company, and made merry in an innocent fashion : they were of mature years and settled characters, and Joseph was only a boy. The danger, however, was not so imminent: no fault could be found with his attention to duty, and a chance so easily escaped was a comfortable guaranty for the future.
Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1870, by FIELDS, OSGOOD, & Co., in the Cleric’s Office of the District Court of the District of Massachusetts.
In the midst of this mood (we can hardly say, train of thought), she detected the top of a carriage through the bushes fringing the lane. The vehicle presently came into view: Anna Warriner was driving, and there were two other ladies on the back seat. As they drew up at the hitching-post on the green, she recognized Lucy Henderson getting out ; but the airy creature who sprang after her, — the girl with dark, falling ringlets, — could it be the stranger from town ? The plain, country-made gingham dress, the sober linen collar, the work-bag on her arm, — could they belong to the stylish young lady whose acquaintance had turned Anna’s head ?
A proper spirit of hospitality required her to meet the visitors at the gate ; so there was no time left for conjecture. She was a little confused, but not dissatisfied at the chance of seeing the stranger.
“We thought we could come for an hour this afternoon, without disturbing you,” said Anna Warriner. “ Mother has lost your receipt for pickling cherries, and Bob said you were already through with the hay-harvest; and so we brought Julia along, — this is Julia Blessing.”
“ How do you do ?” said Miss Blessing, timidly extending her hand, and slightly dropping her eyelids. She then fell behind Anna and Lucy, and spoke no more until they were all seated in the sitting-room.
“ How do you like the country by this time ? ” Rachel asked, feeling that a little attention was necessary to a new guest.
“ So well that I think I shall never like the city again,” Miss Blessing answered. “ This quiet, peaceful life is such a rest; and I really never before knew what order was, and industry, and economy.”
She looked around the room as she spoke, and glanced at the barn through the eastern window.
“Yes, your ways in town are very different,” Rachel remarked.
“It seems to me, now, that they are entirely artificial. I find myself so ignorant of the proper way of living that I should be embarrassed among you. if you were not all so very kind. But I am trying to learn a little.”
“ O, we don’t expect too much of town’s-folks,” said Rachel, in a much more friendly tone, “ and we ’re always glad to see them willing to put up with our ways. But not many are.”
“ Please don’t count me among those!” Miss Blessing exclaimed.
“No, indeed, Miss Rachel!” said Anna Warriner ; “you’d be surprised to know how Julia gets along with everything, — don’t she, Lucy ? ”
“ Yes, she’s very quick,” Lucy Henderson replied.
Miss Blessing cast down her eyes, smiled, and shook her head.
Rachel Miller asked some questions which opened the sluices of Miss Warriner’s gossip, — and she had a good store of it. The ways and doings of various individuals were discussed, and Miss Blessing’s occasional remarks showed a complete familiarity with them. Her manner was grave and attentive, and Rachel was surprised to find so much unobtrusive good sense in her views. The reality was so different from her previously assumed impression, that she felt bound to make some reparation. Almost before she was aware of it, her manner became wholly friendly and pleasant.
“May I look at your trees and flowers ?” Miss Blessing asked, when the gossip had been pretty well exhausted.
They all arose and went out on the lawn. Rose and woodbine, phlox and verbena, passed under review, and then the long, rounded walls of box attracted Miss Blessing’s eye. This was a feature of the place in which Rachel Miller felt considerable pride, and she led the way through the garden gate. Anna Warriner, however, paused, and said: —
“ Lucy, let us go down to the springhouse. We can get back again before Julia has half finished her raptures.”
Lucy hesitated a moment. She looked at Miss Blessing, who laughed and said, “ O, don't mind me ! ” as she took her place at Rachel’s side.
The avenue of box ran the whole length of the garden, which sloped gently to the south. At the bottom, the green walls curved outward, forming three fourths of a circle, spacious enough to contain several seats. There was a delightful view of the valley through the opening.
“ The loveliest place I ever saw ! ” exclaimed Miss Blessing, taking one of the rustic chairs. “How pleasant it must be, when you have all your neighbors here together ! ”
Rachel Miller was a little startled; but before she could reply, Miss Blessing continued : —
“There is such a difference between a company of young people here in the country, and what is called 'a party' in the city. There it is all dress and flirtation and vanity, but here it is only neighborly visiting on a larger scale. I have enjoyed the quiet company of all your "folks so much the more, because I felt that it was so very innocent. Indeed, I don’t see how anybody could be led into harmful ways here. ”
“I don’t know,” said Rachel: “we must learn to mistrust our own hearts.”
“You are right ! The best are weak — of themselves ; but there is more safety where all have been brought up unacquainted with temptation. Now. you will perhaps wonder at me when I say that I could trust the young men — for instance, Mr. Aston, your nephew — as if they were my brothers. That is, I feel a positive certainty of their excellent character. What they say they mean : it is otherwise in the city. It is delightful to see them all together, like members of one family. You must enjoy it, I should think, when they meet here.”
Rachel Miller’s eyes opened wide, and there was both a puzzled and a searching expression in the look she gave Miss Blessing. The latter, with an air of almost infantine simplicity, her lips slightly parted, accepted the scrutiny with a quiet cheerfulness which seemed the perfection of candor.
“ The truth is,'’ said Rachel, slowly, “ this is a new thing. I hope the merry-makings are as innocent as you think ; but I ’m afraid they unsettle the young people, after all.”
“Do you, really?” exclaimed Miss Blessing. “What have you seen in them which leads you to think so ? But no — never mind my question: you may have reasons which I have no right to ask. Now, I remember Mr. Asten telling Anna and Lucy and myself, how much he should like to invite his friends here, if it were not for a duty which prevented it; and a duty, he said, was more important to him than a pleasure.”
“Did Joseph say that?” Rachel exclaimed.
“ O, perhaps I ought n’t to have told it,”said Miss Blessing, casting down her eyes and blushing in confusion : “ in that case, please don't say anything about it ! Perhaps it was a duty towards you, for he told me that he looked upon you as a second mother.”
Rachel’s eyes softened, and it was a little while before she spoke. “ I’ve tried to do my duty by him,” she faltered at last, “but it sometimes seems an unthankful business, and I can’t always tell how he takes it. And so he wanted to have a company here ?”
“ I am so sorry I said it !” cried Miss Blessing. “ I never thought you were opposed to company, on principle. Miss Chaffinch, the minister’s daughter, you know, was there the last time; and, really, if you could see it_ But it is presumptuous in me to say anything. Indeed, I am not a fair judge, because these little gatherings have enabled me to make such pleasant acquaintances. And the young men tell me that they work all the better after them.”
“ It’s only on his account,” said Rachel.
“Nay, I ’m sure that the last thing Mr. Asten would wish would be your criving up a principle for his sake ! I know, from his face, that his own character is founded on principle. And, besides, here in the country, you don't keep count of hospitality, as they do in the city, and feel obliged to return as much as you receive. So, if you will try to forget what I have said —”
Rachel interrupted her. “ I meant something different. Joseph knows why I objected to parties. He must not feel under obligations which I stand in the way of his repaying. If he tells me that he should like to invite his friends to this place, I will help him to entertain them.”
“ You are his second mother, indeed,” Miss Blessing murmured, looking at her with a fond admiration. "And now I can hope that you will forgive my thoughtlessness. I should feel humiliated in his presence, if he knew that I had repeated his words. But he will not ask you, and this is the end of any harm I may have done.
“No,'’ said Rachel, “he will not ask me; but won’t I be an offence in his mind ? ”
“I can understand how you feel — only a woman can judge a woman’s heart. Would you think me too forward if I tell you what might be done, this once ? ”
She stole softly up to Rachel as she spoke, and laid her hand gently upon her arm.
“Perhaps I am wrong, — but if you were first to suggest to your nephew that if he wished to make some return for the hospitality of his neighbors, — or put it in whatever form you think best, — would not that remove the ‘offence ’ (though he surely cannot look at it in that light), and make him grateful and happy ? ”
“Well,” said Rachel, after a little reflection, “if anything is done, that would be as good a way as any.”
“And, of course, you won’t mention me ? ”
“ There’s no call to do it-as I can see.”
“Julia, dear ! ” cried Anna from the gate ; “ come and see the last load of hay hauled into the barn ! ”
“ I should like to see it, if you will excuse me,” said Miss Blessing to Rachel; “ I have taken quite an interest in farming.”
As they were passing the porch, Rachel paused on the step and said to Anna : “ You ’ll bide and get your suppers ? ”
“ I don’t know,” Anna replied : “we did n't mean to ; but we stayed longer than we intended— ”
“ Then you can easily stay longer still.”
There was nothing unfriendly in Rachel’s blunt manner. Anna laughed, took Miss Blessing by the arm, and started for the barn. Lucy Henderson quietly turned and entered the house, where, without any offer of services, she began to assist in arranging the table.
The two young ladies took their stand on the green, at a safe distance, as the huqe fragrant load approached. The hay overhung and concealed the wheels, as well as the hind quarters of the oxen, and on the summit stood Joseph, in his shirt-sleeves and leaning on a pitch-fork. He bent forward as he saw them, answering their greetings with an eager, surprised face.
“ O, take care, take care ! ” cried Miss Blessing, as the load entered the barn-door; but Joseph had already dropped upon his knees and bent his shoulders. Then the wagon stood upon the barn-floor; he sprang lightly upon a beam, descended the upright ladder, and the next moment was shaking hands with them.
“We have kept our promise, you see,” said Miss Blessing.
“ Have you been in the house yet ? ” Joseph asked, looking at Anna.
“ O, for an hour past, and we are going to take supper with you.”
“ Dennis ! ” cried Joseph, turning towards the barn, “ we will let the load stand to-night.”
“ How much better a man looks in shirt-sleeves than in a dress-coat! ” remarked Miss Blessing aside to Anna Warriner, but not in so low a tone as to prevent Joseph from hearing it.
“ Why, Julia, you are perfectly countrified ! I never saw anything like it! ” Anna replied.
Joseph turned to them again, with a bright flush on his face. He caught Miss Blessing’s eyes, full of admiration, before the lids fell modestly over them.
“ So you’ve seen my home, already ? ” he said, as they walked slowly towards the house.
“ O, not the half yet! ” she answered, in a low, earnest tone. “ A place so lovely and quiet as this cannot be appreciated at once. I almost wish I had not seen it: what shall I do when I must go back to the hot pavements, and the glaring bricks, and the dust, and the hollow, artificial life?” She tried to check a sigh, but only partially succeeded ; then, with a sudden effort, she laughed lightly, and added: “I wonder if everybody does n’t long for something else ? Now, Anna, here, would think it heavenly to change places with me.”
“ Such privileges as you have ! ” Anna protested.
“ Privileges ? ” Miss Blessing echoed.
“ The privilege of hearing scandal, of being judged by your dress, of learning the forms and manners, instead of the good qualities, of men and women? No ! give me an independent life.”
“ Alone ? ” suggested Miss Warriner.
Joseph looked at Miss Blessing, who made no reply. Her head was turned aside, and he could well understand that she must feel hurt at Anna’s indelicacy.
In the house, Rachel Miller and Lucy had, in the mean time, been occupied in domestic matters. The former, however, was so shaken. out of her usual quiet by the conversation in the garden, that in spite of prudent resolves to keep quiet, she could not restrain herself from asking a question or two.
“ Lucy,” said she, “ how do you find these evening parties you’ve been attending ? ”
“They are lively and pleasant, — at least every one says so.”
“ Are you going to have any more ? ”
“ It seems to be the wish,” said Lucy, suddenly hesitating, as she found Rachel’s eyes intently fixed upon her face.
The latter was silent for a minute, arranging the tea-service; but she presently asked again: “Do you think Joseph would like to invite the young people here ? ”
“ She has told you ! ” Lucy exclaimed, in unfeigned irritation. “ Miss Rachel, don’t let it trouble you a moment : nobody expects it of you ! ”
Lucy felt, immediately, that her expression had been too frankly positive ; but even the consciousness thereof did not enable her to comprehend its effect
Rachel straightened herself a little, and said “ Indeed ? ” in anything but an amiable tone. She went to the cupboard and returned, before speaking again. “ I did n’t say anybody told me,” she continued; “it’s likely that Joseph might think of it, and I don’t see why people should expect me to stand in the way of his wishes.”
Lucy was so astonished that she could not immediately reply; and the entrance of Joseph and the two ladies cut off all further opportunity of clearing up what she felt to be an awkward misunderstanding.
“ I must help, too! ” cried Miss Blessing, skipping into the kitchen after Rachel. “ That is one thing, at least, which we can learn in the city.
Indeed, if it wasn’t for housekeeping, I should feel terribly useless,”
Rachel protested against her help, but in vain. Miss blessing had a laugh and a lively answer for every remonstrance, and flitted about in a manner which conveyed the impression that she was doing a great deal.
Joseph could scarcely believe his eyes, when he came down from his room in fresh attire, and beheld his aunt not only so assisted, but seeming to enjoy it. Lucy, who appeared to be ill at ease, had withdrawn from the table, and was sitting silently beside the window. Recalling their conversation a few evenings before, he suspected that she might be transiently annoyed on his aunt’s account; she had less confidence, perhaps, in Miss Blessing’s winning, natural manners. So Lucy’s silence threw no shadow upon his cheerfulness: he had never felt so happy, so free, so delighted to assume the character of a host.
After the first solemnity which followed the taking of seats at the table, the meal proceeded with less than the usual decorum. Joseph, indeed, so far forgot his duties, that his aunt was obliged to remind him of them from time to time. Miss Blessing was enthusiastic over the cream and butter and marmalade, and Rachel Miller found it exceedingly pleasant to have her handiwork appreciated. Although she always did her best, for Joseph’s sake, she knew that men have very ignorant, indifferent tastes in such matters.
When the meal was over, Anna Warriner said : “ We are going to take Lucy on her way as far as the crossroads ; so there will not be more than time to get home by sunset.”
Before the carriage was ready, however, another vehicle drove up the lane. Elwood Withers jumped out, gave Joseph a hearty grip of his powerful hand, greeted the others rapidly, and then addressed himself specially to Lucy: “ I was going to a townshipmeeting at the Corner,” said he ; “but Bob Warriner told me you were here with Anna, so I thought I could save her a roundabout drive by taking you myself.”
“ Thank you; but I’m sorry you should go so far out of your road,” said Lucy. Her face was pale, and there was an evident constraint in the smile which accompanied the words.
“ O, he’d go twice as far for company,” Anna Warriner remarked. “ You know I’d take you, and welcome, but Elwood has a good claim on you, now.”
“ I have no claim, Lucy,” said Elwood, rather doggedly.
“ Let us go, then,” were Lucy’s words.
She rose, and the four were soon seated in the two vehicles. They drove away in the low sunshine, one pair chatting and laughing merrily as long as they were within hearing, the other singularly grave and silent.
FOR half a mile Elwood Withers followed the carriage containing Anna Warriner and her friend; then, at the curve of the valley their roads parted, and Lucy and he were alone. The soft light of the delicious summer evening was around them ; the air, cooled by the stream which broadened and bickered beside their way, was full of all healthy meadow odors, and every farm in the branching dells they passed was a picture of tranquil happiness. Yet Lucy had sighed before she was aware of it, — a very faint, tremulous breath, but it reached Elwood’s sensitive ear.
You don’t seem quite well, Lucy,” he said.
“ Because I have talked so little ? ” she asked.
“Not just that, but — but I was almost afraid my coming for you was not welcome. I don’t mean — ” But here he grew confused, and did not finish the sentence.
“ Indeed, it was very kind of you,” said she. This was not an answer to his remark, and both felt that it was not.
Elwood struck the horse with his whip, then as suddenly drew the reins on the startled animal. “ Pshaw !” he exclaimed, in a tone that was almost fierce, “ what ’s the use o’ my beating about the bush in this way ? ”
Lucy caught her breath, and clenched her hands under her shawl for one instant. Then she became calm, and waited for him to say more.
“Lucy!” he continued, turning towards her, “you have a right to think me a fool. I can talk to anybody else more freely than to you, and the reason is, I want to say more to you than to any other woman ! There’s no use in my being a coward any longer ; it’s a desperate venture I ‘m making, but it must be made. Have you never guessed how I feel towards you ? ”
“Yes,” she answered, very quietly.
“Well, what do you say to it?” He tried to speak calmly, but his breath came thick and hard, and the words sounded hoarsely.
“ I will say this, Elwood,” said she, " that because I saw your heart, I have watched your ways and studied your character. I find you honest and manly in everything, and so tender and faithful that I wish I could return your affection in the same measure.”
A gleam, as of lightning, passed over his face.
“ O, don’t misunderstand me ! ” she cried, her calmness forsaking her, “ I esteem, I honor you, and that makes it harder for me to seem ungrateful, unfeeling, — as I must. Elwood, if I could, I would answer you as you wish, but I cannot.”
“If I wait ? ” he whispered.
“ And lose your best years in a vain hope! No, Elwood, my friend,—let me always call you so, — I have been cowardly also. I knew an explanation must come, and I shrank from the pain I should feel in giving you pain. It is hard; and better for both of us that it should not be repeated ! ”
“ There ’s something wrong in this world! ” he exclaimed, after a long pause. “ I suppose you could no more force yourself to love me than I could force myself to love Anna Warriner or that Miss Blessing. Then what put it into my heart to love you ? Was it God or the Devil ? ”
“ Elwood ! ”
“How can I help myself? Can I help drawing my breath ? Did I set about it of my own will ? Here I see a life that belongs to my own fife, — as much a part of it as my head or heart; but I can’t reach it, — it draws away from me, and maybe joins itself to some one else forever ! O my God ! ”
Lucy burst into such a violent passion of weeping, that Elwood forgot himself in his trouble for her. He had never witnessed such grief, as it seemed to him, and his honest heart was filled with self-reproach at havingcaused it.
“Forgive me, Lucy!” he said, very tenderly encircling her with his arm, and drawing her head upon his shoulder ; "I spoke rashly and wickedly, in my disappointment. I thought only of myself, and forgot that I might hurt you by my words. I’m not the only man who has this kind of trouble to bear ; and perhaps if I could see clearer — but I don’t know ; I can only see one thing.”
She grew calmer as he spoke. Lifting her head from his shoulder, she took his hand, and said: “You are a true and a noble man, Elwood. It is only a grief to me that I cannot love you as a wife should love her husband. But my will is as powerless as yours.”
“ I believe you, Lucy,” he answered, sadly. “It’s not your fault, — but, then, it is n’t mine, either. You make me feel that the same rule fits both of us, leastways so far as helping the matter is concerned. You need n’t tell me I may find another woman to love; the very thought of it makes me sick at heart. I’m rougher than you are, and awkward in my ways — ”
“ It is not that! O, believe me, it is not that! ” cried Lucy, interrupting him, "Have you ever sought for reasons to account for your feeling toward me ? Is it not something that does not seem to depend upon what I am, — upon any qualities that distinguish me from other women ? ”
“How do you know so much ?” Elwood asked. “ Have you—” He commenced, but did not finish the question. He leaned silently forward, urged on the horse, and Lucy could see that his face was very stern.
“They say,” she began, on finding that he was not inclined to speak,— “ they say that women have a natural instinct which helps them to understand many things ; and I think it must be true. Why can you not spare me the demand for reasons which I have not ? If I were to take time, and consider it, and try to explain, it would be of no help to you : it would not change the fact. I suppose a man feels humiliated when this trouble comes upon him. He shows his heart, and there seems to be a claim upon the woman of his choice to show hers in return. The sense of injustice is worse than humiliation, Elwood. Though I cannot, cannot do otherwise, I shall always have the feeling that I have wronged you.”
“O Lucy,” he murmured, in a very sad, but not reproachful voice, “every word you say, in showing me that I must give you up, only makes it more impossible to me. And it is just impossible,— that’s the end of the matter ! I know how people talk about trials being sent us for our good, and its being the will of God, and all that. It’s a trial, that ’s true : whether it’s for my good or not, I shall learn after a while ; but I can find out God’s will only by trying the strength of my own. Don’t be afeared, Lucy! I’ve no notion of saying or doing anything from this time on to disturb you, but here you are ” (striking his breast with his clenched hand), “and here you will be when the day comes, as I feel that it must and shall come, to bring us together ! ”
She could see the glow of his face in the gathering dusk, as he turned towards her and offered his hand. How could she help taking it ? If some pulse in her own betrayed the thrill of admiring recognition of the man’s powerful and tender nature, which suddenly warmed her oppressed blood, she did not fear that he would draw courage from the token. She wished to speak, but found no words which, coming after his, would not have seemed either cold and unsympathetic, or too near the verge of the hope which she would gladly have crushed.
Elwood was silent for a while, and hardly appeared to be awaiting an answer. Meanwhile the road left the valley, climbing the shoulders of its enclosing hills, where the moist meadow fragrance was left behind, and dry, warm breezes, filled with the peculiar smell of the wheat-fields, blew over them. It was but a mile farther to the Corner, near which Lucy’s parents resided.
“ How came you three to go to Joseph’s place this afternoon ?” he asked. “Was n’t it a dodge of Miss Blessing’s ? ”
“ She proposed it,— partly in play, I think; and when she afterwards insisted on our going, there seemed to be no good reason for refusing.”
“ O, of course not,” said Elwood; “but tell me now, honestly, Lucy, what do you make out of her ? ”
Lucy hesitated a moment. “ She is a little wilful in her ways, perhaps, but we must n’t judge too hastily. We have known her such a short time. Her manner is very amiable.”
“ I don’t know about that,” Elwood remarked. “It reminds me of one of her dresses, — so ruffled, and puckered, and stuck over with ribbons and things, that you can’t rightly tell what the stuff is. I 'd like to be sure whether she has an eye to Joseph.”
“ To him ! ” Lucy exclaimed.
“ Him first and foremost! He ’s as innocent as a year-old baby. There is n’t a better fellow living than Joseph Asten, but his bringing up has been fitter for a girl than a boy. He hasn’t had his eye-teeth cut yet, and it’s my opinion that she has.”
“ What do you mean by that ? ”
“No harm. Used to the world, as much as anything else. He don’t know how to take people ; he thinks th’ outside color runs down to the core.
So it does with him ; but I can’t see what that girl is, under her pleasant ways, and he won’t guess that there’s anything else of her. Between ourselves, Lucy, — you don’t like her. I saw that when you came away, though you were kissing each other at the time.”
“What a hypocrite I must be ! ” cried Lucy, rather fiercely.
“ Not a bit of it. Women kiss as men shake hands. You don’t go around, saying, ‘Julia dear!’ like Anna Warriner.”
Lucy could not help laughing. “ There,” she said, “ that’s enough, Elwood ! I’d rather you would think yourself in the right than to say anything more about her this evening.”
She sighed wearily, not attempting to conceal her fatigue and depression.
“ Well, well! ” he replied ; “ I ’ll pester you no more with disagreeable subjects. There’s the house, now, and you ’ll soon be rid of me. I won’t tell you, Lucy, that if you ever want for friendly service, you must look to me, — because I ’m afeared you won’t feel free to do it; but you’ll take all I can find to do without your asking.”
Without waiting for an answer he drew up his horse at the gate of her home, handed her out, said “ Good night ! ” and drove away.
Such a singular restlessness took possession of Joseph, after the departure of his guests, that the evening quiet of the farm became intolerable. He saddled his horse and set out for the village, readily inventing an errand which explained the ride to himself as well as to his aunt.
The regular movements of the animal did not banish the unquiet motions of his mind, but it relieved him by giving them a wider sweep and a more definite form. The man who walks is subject to the power of his Antæus of a body, moving forwards only by means of the weight which holds it to the earth. There is a clog upon all his thoughts, an ever-present sense of restriction and impotence. But when he is lifted above the soil, with the air under his foot-soles, swiftly moving without effort, his mind, a poising Mercury, mounts on winged heels. He feels the liberation of new and nimble powers ; wider horizons stretch around his inward vision ; obstacles are measured or overlooked ; the brute strength under him charges his whole nature with a more vigorous electricity.
The fresh, warm, healthy vital force which filled Joseph’s body to the last embranchment of every nerve and vein — the hum of those multitudinous spirits of life, which, while building their glorious abode, march as if in triumphant procession through its secret passages, and summon all the fairest phantoms of sense to their completed chambers — constituted, far more than he suspected, an element of his disturbance. This was the strong pinion on which his mind and soul hung balanced, above the close atmosphere which he seemed to ride away from, as he rode. The great joy of human life filled and thrilled him ; all possibilities of action and pleasure and emotion swam before his sight ; all he had read or heard of individual careers in all ages, climates, and conditions of the race — dazzling pictures of the myriadsided earth, to be won by whosoever dared arbitrarily to seize the freedom waiting for his grasp — floated through his brain.
Hitherto a conscience not born of his own nature, — a very fair and saintly-visaged jailer of thought, but a jailer none the less,— had kept strict guard over every outward movement of his mind, gently touching hope and desire and conjecture when they reached a certain line, and saying, “ No; no farther: it is prohibited.” But now, with one strong, involuntary throb, he found himself beyond the line, with all the ranges ever trodden by man stretching forward to a limitless horizon. He rose in his stirrups, threw out his arms, lifted his face towards the sky, and cried, “ God ! I see what I am ! ”
It was only a glimpse, — like that of a landscape struck in golden fire by lightning, from the darkness. “ What is it,”he mused, “ that stands between me and this vision of life ? Who built a wall of imaginary law around these needs, which are in themselves inexorable laws ? The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, they say in warning. Bright, boundless world, my home, my play-ground, my battle-field, my kingdom to be conquered ! And this body they tell me to despise, — this perishing house of clay, which is so intimately myself that its comfort and delight cheer me to the inmost soul: it is a dwelling fit for an angel to inhabit ! Shall not its hungering senses all be fed ? Who shall decide for me — if not myself—on their claims,— who can judge for me what strength requires to be exercised, what pleasure to be enjoyed, what growth to be forwarded ? All around me, everywhere, are the means of gratification, — I have but to reach forth my hand and grasp ; but a narrow cell, built ages ago, encloses me wherever I go ! ”
Such was the vague substance of his thoughts. It was the old struggle between life— primitive, untamed life, as the first man may have felt it—and its many masters : assertion and resistance, all the more fierce because so many influences laid their hands upon its forces. As he came back to his usual self, refreshed by this temporary escape, Joseph wondered whether other men shared the same longing and impatience ; and this turned his musings into another channel. " Why do men so carefully conceal what is deepest and strongest in their natures? Why is so little of spiritual struggle and experience ever imparted ? The convert publicly admits his sinful experience, and tries to explain the entrance of grace into his regenerated nature ; the reformed drunkard seems to take a positive delight in making his former condition degraded and loathsome ; but the opening of the individual life to the knowledge of power and passion and all the possibilities of the world is kept more secret than sin.
Love is hidden as if it were a reproach; friendship watched, lest it express its warmth too frankly ; joy and grief and doubt and anxiety repressed as much as possible. A great lid is shut down upon the human race. They must painfully stoop and creep, instead of standing erect with only God’s heaven over their heads. I am lonely, but I know not how to cry for companionship ; my words would not be understood, or, if they were, would not be answered. Only one gate is free to me, — that leading to the love of woman. There, at least, must be such an intense, intimate sympathy as shall make the reciprocal revelation of the lives possible ! ”
Full of this single certainty, which, the more he pondered upon it, seemed to be his nearest chance of help, Joseph rode slowly homewards. Rachel Miller, who had impatiently awaited his coining, remarked the abstraction of his face, and attributed it to a very different cause. She was thereby wonderfully strengthened to make her communication in regard to the evening company; nevertheless, the subject was so slowly approached and so ambiguously alluded to, that Joseph could not immediately understand it.
“ That is something ! That is a step ! ” he said to himself; then, turning towards her with a genuine satisfaction in his face, added : “ Aunt, do you know that I have never really felt until now that I am the owner of this property ? It will be more of a home to me after I have received the neighborhood as my guests. It has always controlled me, but now it must serve me ! ”
He laughed in great good-humor, and Rachel Miller, in her heart, thanked Miss Julia Blessing.
RACHEL MILLER was not a woman to do a thing by halves. As soon as the question was settled, she gave her heart and mind to the necessary preparations. There might have been a little surprise in some quarters, when the fact became known in the neighborhood through Joseph’s invitation, but no expression of it reached the Asten place. Mrs. Warriner, Anna’s mother, called to inquire if she could be of service, and also to suggest, indirectly, her plan of entertaining company. Rachel detected the latter purpose, and was a little more acquiescent than could have been justified to her own conscience, seeing that at the very moment when she was listening with much apparent meekness, she was mentally occupied with plans for outdoing Mrs. Warriner. Moreover, the Rev. Mr. Chaffinch had graciously signified his willingness to be present, and the stamp of strictest orthodoxy was thus set upon the entertainment. She was both assured and stimulated, as the time drew near, and even surprised Joseph by saying: “ If I was better acquainted with Miss Blessing, she might help me a good deal in fixing everything just as it should be. There are times, it seems, when it’s an advantage to know something of the world.”
“ I ’ll ask her! ” Joseph exclaimed.
“ You ! And a mess you’d make of it, very likely ; men think they 've only to agree to invite a company, and that’s all ! There’s a hundred things to be thought of that women must look to ; you could n’t even understand ’em. As for speaking to her, — she’s one of the invites, and it would never do in the world.”
Joseph said no more, but he silently determined to ask Miss Blessing on her arrival ; there would still be time. She, with her wonderful instinct, her power of accommodating people to each other, and the influence which she had already acquired with his aunt, would certainly see at a glance how the current was setting, and guide it in the proper direction.
But, as the day drew near, he grew so restless and uneasy that there seemed nothing better to do than to ride over to Warriner’s in the hope of catching a moment’s conference with her, in advance of the occasion.
He was entirely fortunate. Anna was apparently very busy with household duties, and after the first greetings left him alone with Miss Blessing. He had anticipated a little difficulty in making his message known, and was therefore much relieved when she said: “ Now, Mr. Asten, I see by your face that you have something particular to say. It’s about to-morrow night, is n’t it ? You must let me help you, if I can, because I am afraid I have been, without exactly intending it, the cause of so much trouble to you and your aunt.”
Joseph opened his heart at once. All that he had meant to say came easily and naturally to his lips, because Miss Blessing seemed to feel and understand the situation, and met him halfway in her bright, cheerful acquiescence. Almost before he knew it, he had made her acquainted with what had been said and done at home. How easily she solved the absurd doubts and difficulties which had so unnecessarily tormented him ! How clearly, through her fine female instinct, she grasped little peculiarities of his aunt’s nature, which he, after years of close companionship, had failed to define ! Miss Rachel, she said, was both shy and inexperienced, and it was only the struggle to conceal these conscious defects which made her seem—not unamiable, exactly, but irregular in her manner. Her age, and her character in the neighborhood, did not permit her to appear incompetent to any emergency : it was a very natural pride, and must be treated both delicately and tenderly.
Would Joseph trust the matter entirely to her, Miss Blessing? It was a great deal to ask, she knew, comparative stranger as she was ; but she believed that a woman, when her nature had not been distorted by the conventionalities of life, had a natural talent for smoothing difficulties, and removing obstacles for others. Her friends had told her that she possessed this power; and it was a great happiness to think so. In the present case, she was sure she should make no mistake. She would endeavor not to seem to suggest anything, but merely to assist in such a way that Miss Rachel would of herself see what else was necessary to be done.
“Now,” she remarked, in conclusion, “this sounds like vanity in me; but I really hope it is not. You must remember that in the city we are obliged to know all the little social arts, — and artifices, I am afraid. It is not always to our credit, but then, the heart may be kept fresh and uncorrupted.”
She sighed, and cast down her eyes. Joseph felt the increasing charm of a nature so frank and so trustful, constantly luring to the surface the maiden secrets of his own. The confidence already established between them was wholly delightful, because their sense of reciprocity increased as it deepened. He felt so free to speak that he could not measure the fitness of his words, but exclaimed, without a pause for thought:—
“Tell me, Miss Julia, did you not suggest this party to Aunt Rachel ? ”
“ Don’t give me too much credit! ” she answered ; “ it was talked about, and I could n’t help saying Ay. I longed so much to see you — all — again before I go away.”
“ And Lucy Henderson objected to it?”
“Lucy, I think, wanted to save your aunt trouble. Perhaps she did not guess that the real objection was inexperience, and not want of will to entertain company. And very likely she helped to bring it about, by seeming to oppose it ; so you must not be angry with Lucy, — promise me ! ”
She looked at him with an irresistibly entreating expression, and extended her hand, which he seized so warmly as to give her pain. But she returned the pressure, and there was a moment’s silence, which Anna Warriner interrupted at the right time.
The next day, on the Asten farm, all the preparations were quietly and successfully made long in advance of the first arrivals. The Rev. Mr. Chaffinch and a few other specially chosen guests made their appearance in the afternoon. To Joseph’s surprise, the Warriners and Miss Blessing speedily joined them. It was, in reality, a private arrangement which his aunt had made, in order to secure at the start the very assistance which he had been plotting to render. One half the secret of the ease and harmony which he felt was established was thus unknown to him. He looked for hints or indications of management on Miss Blessing’s part, but saw none. The two women, meeting each other half-way, needed no words in order to understand each other, and Miss Rachel, gradually made secure in her part of hostess, experienced a most unaccustomed sense of triumph.
At the supper-table Mr. Chaffinch asked a blessing with fervor ; a great, balmy dish of chickens stewed in cream was smoking before his nostrils, and his fourth cup of tea made Rachel Miller supremely happy. The meal was honored in silence, as is the case where there is much to eat and a proper desire and capacity to do it: only towards its close, when the excellence of the jams required acknowledgment, were the tongues of the guests loosened, and content made them cheerful.
“You have entertained us almost too sumptuously, Miss Miller,” said the clergyman. “ And now let us go out on the portico, and welcome the young people as they arrive.”
“ I need hardly ask you, then, Mr. Chaffinch,” said she, “whether you think it right for them to come together in this way.”
“ Decidedly ! ” he answered ; “ that is, so long as their conversation is modest and becoming. It is easy for the vanities of the world to slip in, but we must watch, — we must watch.”
Rachel Miller took a seat near him, beholding the gates of perfect enjoyment opened to her mind. Dress, the opera, the race-course, literature, stocks, politics, have their fascination for so many several classes of the human race ; but to her there was nothing on this earth so delightful as to be told of temptation and backsliding and sin, and to feel that she was still secure. The fact that there was always danger added a zest to the feeling ; she gave herself credit for a vigilance which had really not been exercised.
The older guests moved their chairs nearer, and listened, forgetting the sweetness of sunset which lay upon the hills down the valley. Anna Warriner laid her arm around Miss Chaffinch’s waist, and drew her towards the mown field beyond the barn ; and presently, by a natural chance, as it seemed, Joseph found himself beside Miss Blessing, at the bottom of the lawn.
All the western hills were covered with one cool, broad shadow. A rich orange flush touched the tops of the woods to the eastward, and brightened as the sky above them deepened into the violet-gray of coming dusk. The moist, delicious freshness which filled the bed of the valley slowly crept up the branching glen, and already tempered the air about them. Now and then a bird chirped happily from a neighboring bush, or the low of cattle was heard from the pasture-fields.
“Ah!” sighed Miss Blessing, “this is too sweet to last: I must learn to do without it.”
She looked at him swiftly, and then glanced away. It seemed that there were tears in her eyes.
Joseph was about to speak, but she laid her hand on his arm. “Hush!” she said ; “ let us wait until the light has faded.”
The glow had withdrawn to the summits of the distant hills, fringing them with a thin, wonderful radiance. But it was only momentary. The next moment it broke on the irregular topmost boughs, and then disappeared, as if blown out by a breeze which came with the sudden lifting of the sky. She turned away in silence, and they walked slowly together towards the house. At the garden gate she paused.
“That superb avenue of box!” she exclaimed ; “ I must see it again, if only to say farewell.”
They entered the garden, and in a moment the dense green wall, breathing an odor seductive to heart and senses, had hidden them from the sight — and almost from the hearing — of the guests on the portico. Looking down through the southern opening of the avenue, they seemed alone in the evening valley.
Joseph’s heart was beating fast and strong; he was conscious of a wild fear, so interfused with pleasure, that it was impossible to separate the sensations. Miss Blessing’s hand was on his arm, and he fancied that it trembled.
“If life were as beautiful and peaceful as this,” she whispered, at last, “ we should not need to seek for truth and — and — sympathy : we should find them everywhere.”
“ Do you not think they are to be found ? ” he asked.
“ O, in how few hearts ! I can say it to you, and you will not misunderstand me. Until lately I was satisfied with life as I found it: I thought it meant diversion, and dress, and gossip, and common daily duties, but now — now I see that it is the union of kindred souls! ”
She clasped both her hands over his arm as she spoke, and leaned slightly towards him, as if drawing away from the dreary, homeless world. Joseph felt all that the action expressed, and answered in an unsteady voice : —
“ And yet — with a nature like yours — you must surely find them.”
She shook her head sadly, and answered : “Ah, a woman cannot seek. I never thought I should be able to say — to any human being—that I have sought, or waited for recognition. I do not know why I should say it now. I try to be myself—my true self— with all persons ; but it seems impossible : my nature shrinks from some and is drawn towards other. Why is this ? what is the mystery that surrounds us ? ”
“ Do you believe,” Joseph asked, “that two souls may be so united that they shall dare to surrender all knowledge of themselves to each other, as we do, helplessly, before God ? ”
“O,” she murmured, “it is my dream ! I thought I was alone in cherishing it! Can it ever be realized ? ”
Joseph’s brain grew hot: the release he had invoked sprang to life and urged him forward. Words came to his lips; he knew not how.
“If it is my dream and yours, — if we both have come to the faith and the hope we find in no others, and which alone will satisfy our lives, is it not a sign that the dream is over and the reality has begun ? ”
She hid her face in her hands. “ Do not tempt me with what I had given up, unless you can teach me to believe again ? ” she cried.
“I do not tempt you,” he answered breathlessly. “ I tempt myself. I believe,”
She turned suddenly, laid a hand upon his shoulder, lifted her face and looked into his eyes with an expression of passionate eagerness and joy. All her attitude breathed of the pause of the wave that only seems to hesitate an instant before throwing itself upon the waiting strand. Joseph had no defence, knew of none, dreamt of none. The pale-brown eyes, now dark, deep, and almost tearful, drew him with irresistible force : the sense of his own shy reticent self was lost, dissolved in the strength of an instinct which possessed him body and soul, — which bent him nearer to the slight form, which stretched his arms to answer its appeal, and left him, after one dizzy moment, with Miss Blessing’s head upon his breast.
“I should like to die now,” she murmured : "I never can be so happy again.”
“ No, no,” said he, bending over her ; “ live for me ! ”
She raised herself, and kissed him again and again, and this frank, almost childlike betrayal of her heart seemed to claim from Joseph the full surrender of his own. He returned her caresses with equal warmth, and the twilight deepened around them as they stood, still half-embracing.
“Can I make you happy, Joseph ?”
“Julia, I am already happier than I ever thought it possible to be.”
With a sudden impulse she drew away from him. “Joseph ! ” she whispered, “will you always bear in mind what a cold, selfish, worldly life mine has been ? You do not know me ; you cannot understand the school in which I have been taught. I tell you, now, that I have had to learn cunning and artifice and equivocation. I am dark beside a nature so pure and good as yours ! If you must ever learn to hate me, begin now ! Take back your love : I have lived so long without the love of a noble human heart, that I can live so to the end ! ”
She again covered her face with her hands, and her frame shrank, as if dreading a mortal blow. But Joseph caught her back to his breast, touched and even humiliated by such sharp selfaccusation. Presently she looked up : her eyes were wet, and she said, with a pitiful smile : —
“ I believe you do love me.”
“And I will not give you up,” said Joseph, “though you should be full of evil as I am, myself.”
She laughed, and patted his cheek : all her frank, bright, winning manner returned at once. Then commenced those reciprocal expressions of bliss, which are so inexhaustibly fresh to lovers, so endlessly monotonous to everybody else ; and Joseph, lost to time, place, and circumstance, would have prolonged them far into the night, but for Miss Julia’s returning self-possession.
“ I hear wheels,” she warned ; “ the evening guests are coming, and they will expect you to receive them, Joseph. And your dear, good old aunt will be looking for me. O, the world, the world ! We must give ourselves up to it, and be as if we had never found each other. I shall be wild unless you set me an example of self-control. Let me look at you once, —one full, precious, perfect look, to carry in my heart through the evening ! ”
Then they looked in each other’s faces ; and looking was not enough; and their lips, without the use of words, said the temporary farewell. While Joseph hurried across the bottom of the lawn, to meet the stream of approaching guests which filled the lane, Miss Julia, at the top of the garden, plucked amaranth leaves for a wreath which would look well upon her dark hair, and sang, in a voice loud enough to be heard from the portico : —
Pride of the pirate’s heart! ”
Everybody who had been invited — and quite a number who had not been, availing themselves of the easy habits of country society — came to the Asten farm that evening. Joseph, as host, seemed at times a little confused and flurried, but his face bloomed, his blue eyes sparkled, and even his nearest acquaintances were astonished at the courage and cordiality with which he performed his duties. The presence of Mr. Chaffinch kept the gayety of the company within decorous bounds ; perhaps the number of detached groups appeared to form too many separate circles, or atmospheres of talk, but they easily dissolved, or gave to and took from each other. Rachel Miller was not inclined to act the part of a moral detective in the house which she managed ; she saw nothing which the strictest sense of propriety could condemn.
Early in the evening, Joseph met Lucy Henderson in the hall. He could not see the graver change in her face ; he only noticed that her manner was not so quietly attractive as usual. Yet on meeting her eyes he felt the absurd blood rushing to his cheeks and brow, and his tongue hesitated and stammered. This want of self-possession vexed him : he could not account for it; and he cut short the interview by moving abruptly away.
Lucy half turned, and looked after him, with an expression rather of surprise than of pain. As she did so she felt that there was an eye upon her, and by a strong effort entered the room without encountering the face of Elwood Withers.
When the company broke up, Miss Blessing, who was obliged to leave with the Warriners, found an opportunity to whisper to Joseph : “ Come soon ! " There was a long, fervent clasp of hands under her shawl, and then the carriage drove away. He could not see how the hand was transferred to that of Anna Warriner, which received from it a squeeze conveying an entire narrative to that young lady’s mind.
Joseph’s duties to his many guests prevented him from seeing much of Elwood during the evening ; but, when the last were preparing to leave, he turned to the latter, conscious of a tenderer feeling of friendship than he had ever before felt, and begged him to stay for the night. Elwood held up the lantern, with which he had been examining the harness of a carriage that had just rolled away, and let its light fall upon Joseph’s lace.
“Do you really mean it?” he then asked.
“ I don’t understand you, Elwood.”
“ Perhaps I don’t understand myself.” But the next moment he laughed, and then added, in his usual tone: "Never mind: I’ll stay.”
They occupied the same room; and neither seemed inclined to sleep. After the company had been discussed, in a way which both felt to be awkward and mechanical, Elwood said: “Do you know anything more about love, by this time ? ”
Joseph was silent, debating with himself whether he should confide the wonderful secret. Elwood suddenly rose up in his bed, leaned forward and whispered: “I see, — you need not answer. But tell me this one thing : is it Lucy Henderson ? ”
“ No ; O, no ! ”
“ Does she know of it ? Your face told some sort of a tale when you met her to-night.”
“ Not to her, —surely not to her ! " Joseph exclaimed.
“ I hope not,” Elwood quietly said: “ I love her.”
With a bound Joseph crossed the room and sat down on the edge of his friend’s bed. “Elwood!” he cried; “and you are happy, too! O, now I can tell you all, — it is Julia Blessing ! ”
“ Ha ! ha ! ” Elwood laughed, —a short, bitter laugh, which seemed to signify anything but happiness. “ Forgive me, Joseph ! ” he presently added, “ but there ’s a deal of difference between a mitten and a ring. You will have one and I have the other. I did think, for a little while, that you stood between Lucy and me ; but I suppose disappointment makes men fools.”
Something in Joseph’s breast seemed to stop the warm flood of his feelings. He could only stammer, after a long pause : “But I am not in your way.”
“So I see,— and perhaps nobody is, except myself. We won’t talk of this any more ; there’s many a roundabout road that comes out into the straight one at last. But you, — I can’t understand the thing at all. How did she — did you come to love her ? ”
“ I don’t know, I hardly guessed it until this evening.”
“ Then, Joseph, go slowly, and feel your way. I’m not the one to advise, after what has happened to me ; but maybe I know a little more of womankind than you. It’s best to have a longer acquaintance than yours has been ; a fellow can’t always tell a sudden fancy from a love that has the grip of death.”
“Now I might turn your own words against you, Elwood, for you tried to tell me what love is.”
“ I did ; and before I knew the half. But come, Joseph : promise me that you won’t let Miss Blessing know how much you feel, until — ”
“Elwood!” Joseph breathlessly interrupted, “ she knows it now ! We were together this evening.”
Elwood fell back on the pillow, with a groan. “ I’m a poor friend to you,” he said : “ I want to wish you joy, but I can’t, — not to-night. The way things are fixed in this world stumps me, out and out. Nothing fits as it ought, and if I did n’t take my head in my own hands and hold it towards the light by main force, I ’d only see blackness, and death, and hell! ”
Joseph stole back to his bed, and lay there silently. There was a subtle chill in the heart of his happiness, which all the remembered glow of that tender scene in the garden could not thaw.